The Irish gems of Shannonside: Enjoying your first and last days

A couple and their teen-aged daughter arrived in the afternoon at the farmhouse B and B (bed and breakfast) where I was staying in Adare, County Limerick. The Irish Tourist Board in Killarney had booked their reservation, telling them that they would probably arrive after 9 p.m. Because they were so much ahead of schedule, they wondered if they should move along closer to the airport in order to make their 3 p.m. flight the next day. When they learned they were less than an hour away from Shannon, they decided to stay in Adare after all. It was a good thing they did. Finding a night's lodging near the airport can be difficult late in the day, and they would have hit rush-hour traffic through Limerick, only to find the Tourist Board office closed. In short, they might have spent their last night in Ireland washing their socks.

Instead, they enjoyed an evening stroll through one of the prettiest villages in the country, feasted on roast beef at the Dunraven Arms -- the local hotel noted for its superb food -- and still had plenty of time to see Bunratty Castle and Folk Park the next morning before boarding their flight back to New York.

Shannon is unique among major airports in that it was not built to serve a city. In fact, a town and industrial park have been built to service the airport and promote its use. Finding a restaurant your first night in the country, therefore, or entertainment your last evening is not just a matter of driving into the city.

This westernmost airport in Europe had been a vital refueling base for pre-jet transatlantic flights from the '30s to the late '50s. Until 1958, 80 percent of the commercial air traffic from North America passed through here. With the introduction of long-range jets, capable of reaching many European capitals, the Irish government decided to develop tourism in the country to ensure that Shannon would remain a major airport.

The Shannon Free Airport Development Company was incorporated as an agency of the Irish government to promote and develop the airport region. The industrial ``free zone,'' the airport's duty-free store, and a number of visitor attractions are under its auspices.

The duty-free shop was a Shannon invention that has been copied elsewhere. (Although I prefer to do the bulk of my gift shopping as I go along, I always allow time to pick up a few last-minute purchases in the store, including smoked salmon at a fraction of the United States price.) The shop's reputation, however, has given many travelers the impression, as one friend put it, that the entire Shannon area is ``just a giant K mart.'' Others think of it simply as something to drive through to reach the scenic beauties of Galway and Kerry.

This is really too bad, because Shannonside, as this area along the Shannon River and estuary is called, offers a wonderful Irish welcome or send-off. Superb restaurants are tucked away here and there, and the area is well noted for traditional music. The scenery shifts from lush farmland to sandy beaches alternating with 700-foot cliffs. Fishermen share the waters with scuba divers and surfers.

This is also the historic homeland of the powerful O'Brien kings, and ruins and restorations are plentiful. Even a one-day stopover can be a worthwhile Irish adventure with so much available within an hour or two of the airport. But unlike Connemara or Kerry, where the roads are few and the beauty breathtaking along each one, the gems of Shannonside may take a little mining to discover.

There really isn't much inside Shannon airport or along the four-lane divided highway as you leave that would lead you to believe you were anywhere other than in a small American Midwestern city -- except, of course, that you are driving on the left side of the road. The industrial park, the new modern housing, all seem unnervingly fam- iliar.

Ireland begins to creep up on you when you pass Bunratty Castle. As you drive into Limerick, and see the fishermen knee-deep in the shallow Shannon River and the unmistakable oldness of the stone bridges, castle, churches, and promenades, you begin to feel that you have arrived in the Emerald Isle after all.

Limerick is by no means a beauty, but it has character -- in the paint-box pink cheeks of the children, an astounding number of whom are redheaded; street musicians playing traditional tunes; the painted doors at the south end of Cecil Street; the wallflowers growing tenaciously through centuries-old stone.

But until the last year or two, Limerick seemed content to let the travelers pass through. Even finding a place for lunch could be difficult. Now, restoration projects are beginning to spruce up the city. Happily, one of the first buildings to complete its face lift includes a fine restaurant, the Granary Tavern, that offers a buffet lunch as well as dinner and entertainment. The renovated 18th-century warehouse at the junction of the Shannon and Abbey Rivers also houses the Tourist Board.

In July and August, traditional music programs are held in King John's Castle, sponsored by the local chapter of Comhaltas Ceolt'oir'i 'Eireann (CCE).

The CCE programs take place in a number of Shannonside locations during the summer. Annual festivals are held in Ennis and Lis- doonvarna, and the tiny coastal town of Doolin is a popular gathering place for musicians from all over.

Doolin is only a few miles from the Cliffs of Moher, a five-mile stretch of spectacular drops to the sea. On a clear day you can see all the way out to the Aran Islands.

Inland from Doolin, at Kilfenora, is the visitors' center for the Burren, a ``lunar'' landscape hosting a remarkable range of wildflowers, from Mediterranean to Alpine. Dolmens point surprisingly to prehistoric settlement of this strange and rather eerie region.

Historic evidence of a gentler sort can be seen carved into a copper beech tree in Coole Park near Gort, halfway between Galway and Shannon. Coole Park was the home of Lady Gregory, the patroness of Irish writers, most notably William Butler Yeats. Her guests, who included John Millington Synge, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O'Casey, AE, and many others, were invited to sign in on her tree. Although it's been more than 50 years since the last name was carved, many can still be read.

A few miles from Coole Park is Thoor Ballylee, the tower house W. B. Yeats restored for his wife. Opened to the public in 1965, it contains some of his furniture and memorabilia.

The most extensive restoration project is also the closest to the airport. Bunratty Castle is only a few miles from Shannon, and the visitor can step from the 20th to the 15th century in a matter of minutes. The surrounding Folk Park includes farmhouses, a reconstruction of a village street at the turn of the century, and most recently a manor house. Hot scones and tea are served in the tea shop.

Medieval banquets at Bunratty Castle, as well as Dunguaire and Knappogue Castles. These are geared for the widest popular appeal, including the food, but can be a fun first night if you're in the proper mood.

Your travel agent can book a reservation ahead for you. In fact, it's a good idea to make a reservation for your first night's dinner anywhere in the area, as well as accommodations.

Two restaurants that are often booked several days in advance are worth the extra effort. McCloskeys is in the renovated basement of the old manor house behind Bunratty Park. The feeling is country cottage and the food imaginative. Your table will be booked for you for the evening, so feel free to linger -- a good introduction to the unhurried pace of Irish life.

Thisilldous is just off the road from Shannon to Limerick at Hurlers Cross. This is a favorite of local businessmen. When Tony and Waltraud McMahon were looking for a site for a restaurant, they weren't able to find anything to their liking. One day, Tony stood in the living room of the couple's modern pitched-roof house and with sudden inspiration said, ``This 'ill do us!'' And Thisilldous it is. They have expanded their living room, but it still has the feel of having the family home for Thanksgiving. Try the veal.

Shannonside accommodations run from B and B and Edwardian guesthouses to newer hotels such as Jury's in Limerick, or the luxurious Dromoland Castle, with its golf course, riding stables, tennis courts, and lakes. Be sure to give the hotel or B and B the time of your arrival so your room will be ready.

With some careful planning, you can make every minute of your Irish visit count. Practical information:

The Irish Tourist Board offers a number of guidebooks that I wouldn't leave home without. Ask for its regional guides and brochures, as well as its ``Ireland Guide.'' You'll also want ``Top Visitor Attractions,'' ``Dining in Ireland,'' ``Hotels and Guesthouses,'' and ``Irish Homes Accommodations'' (B and B and farmhouses). These are provided free of charge outside Ireland. Write: Irish Tourist Board, 590 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10036.

For music events, ask for ``Ireland in Musical Mood,'' either from the Tourist Board, or directly from Comhaltas Ceolt'oir'i 'Eireann, Belgrave Square, Monkstown, County Dublin, Ireland.

You can book a bed-and-breakfast inn directly, or through the Central Reservation Service, c/o Irish Tourist Board, Baggot Street Bridge, Dublin 2, Ireland.

Aer Lingus and Northwest Orient Airlines fly into Shannon from Boston and New York. Aer Lingus has daily flights from New York during the summer. Transamerica Airlines flies from New York.

A portion of Deborah Hand's recent tour was sponsored by Aer Lingus and the Irish Tourist Board.

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